The taxi taking her to her new life skidded to an abrupt stop. A single drop of sweat flew from her eyebrows and landed on the grubby screen in front of her, tracing a clear, glistening path down through the grime.
“Damn, it’s icing up. I’m afraid you’ll have to walk to the wharf.”
Jessica blinked. It was August, it had in point of fact been unusually warm, and she was not in the mood for practical jokes.
In the mood or not, the driver was already outside with her case, ushering her out. An icy chill hit her as she peered out into the almost crystalline sunshine. The pavement glittered with such vibrancy that she hesitated to step onto it. It seemed almost too enticing. It had the appearance of a vortex which once entered might become unescapable.
“Come on love, I haven’t got all day!”
Pure Cockney impatience: there was nothing quite like it. Forcing her legs into motion, she placed one sensible Mary Jane shoe down gingerly and was reassured to find that she still remained in one piece. Such was the driver’s hurry that she almost didn’t notice the tingle which swept down her spine as she exited the vehicle. It must be the cold, she thought. A microclimate, perhaps. She’d never been to this part of the coast before.
As she looked up from the pavement, a glistening glass structure rose up before her, spiralling seamlessly from sea to sky. Its beauty was breathtaking. Taken aback, she stood as if frozen, gazing at the monumental object and reflexively shielding her eyes as the bright light burnt itself into her retina. This was not what she had been expecting on her first day as a ship’s doctor.
Distracted, she barely noticed the screech of the taxi’s hurried departure.
“Bit of an eyeful, isn’t she?” A loud Australian twang filled Jess’s left ear, as a seemingly disembodied arm took hold of her left elbow and steered her forward.
Jess didn’t take kindly to being touched. She closely resembled a leaky nuclear reactor: her exclusion zone was wide and anyone daring to venture nearby was liable to get more than they bargained for. In one smooth, well practised manoeuvre, she took a firm grip of the offending limb and twisted it up and back, applying just enough pressure to immobilise but not dislocate.
A sharp intake of breath followed. “Calm down love, you’ll put my shoulder out!”
She got a proper look at her hostage for the first time. He was only a slight little thing, but wiry. She tightened her grip a fraction, just in case. “I. Am. Not. Your. Love.”
“Alright, alright! I’m sorry! I’m your welcome party. That’s all.” He was taking her seriously now. She could feel the muscles of his shoulder starting to shake beneath her grasp.
“Sneaking up behind my back and touching me isn’t welcome.”
“Okay, I promise never to do it again, if you’ll give me my arm back in one piece.”
Jess released him, keeping herself at what felt like a safe distance as the unwanted greetings party massaged his arm. “Just so we’re one hundred per cent clear, I’m the ship’s doctor, not your floozy! Don’t put your hands where they don’t belong or you’ll be my first patient of the cruise.”
“Got it. Whatever you say goes.” He backed away. His face looked like it would have been cheerful under other circumstances, with big brown eyes radiating overtones of wounded puppy. Jess began to feel bad. How had she got the wrong end of the stick so easily? He had seemed so threatening before.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, sneaking up on me like that?”
“I was just…. I just thought, I’d say hello, help you with your stuff, make you welcome… you know? It’s my job to get you on board in one piece. Not that you seem to need any help with that.”
Jess relented somewhat. “I’m sorry. I was in the Army, you see. It’s the training. It never leaves you.”
“Didn’t know they taught kung fu in the Army!” He sounded almost petulant.
“They don’t. It’s more of a hobby of mine.” Here she was meant to be sailing away from all of that, and she was already letting her past contaminate her future, an invisible but relentless anchor. “Look, I really am sorry. Can we start again? I’m Jessica. I’m the new ship’s doctor.”
“Charmed, I’m sure. I’m Ant, I’m one of the ship’s engineers. I’m your welcome party. We’d better hurry. Tardiness is not encouraged around here.”
Jess turned to grab her case, but it had vanished. As she looked down, she noticed that no trace of the scuffle remained on the crystalline surface. “That’s strange. My case. It was just here.”
“Don’t worry about that. I took care of it. We need to go. Now.”
As he spoke, the ground itself seemed to hum with urgency. Jess’s gaze was drawn once more by the sparkling surface below, which seemed to oscillate in time with the sound. She could have sworn that the light was increasing in brightness with every pulse. It was becoming intolerable.
“Look, we really have to get a breeze on,” Ant insisted.
“What is … that sound?”
“This ain’t a tourist trip Jessica. You’ll get answers soon enough. We have to go. Come. We have to. Now.” Something in the urgency in his eyes and voice told her that he was serious. She had thought before that perhaps she wasn’t safe with him, but maybe it was just that neither of them were safe in this place, precariously perched on this odd pulsating surface. She broke into a jog, following him towards the light.
As they approached, the structure which had blinded her initially got clearer. It was a large vessel, designed almost like a hovercraft in two sections, each one the size of a large cruiser. The two parts were connected by a large spiral which seemed to be the source of both the light and the sound. As she ran, she could feel the oscillations pulsing through her bones each time her feet struck the ground. The whole quay was shaking now, and she could see fragments of the crystalline substance, icy in appearance but almost frothy in texture, like spun sugar, plummeting to the increasingly rough seas below. Ahead of them a rope bridge was tenuously attached to the edge of one deck. It whipped backwards and forwards with every pulsation. Thankfully Jess didn’t have time to think, she just leapt onto it and raced across to the other side. As she pulled herself across she realised that the rope itself was made from strands of the very same crystalline material that she had observed on the wharf, and even as she grasped it, the rope began to untangle itself beneath her fingers. She felt the acid taste of fear in her mouth. She knew she must go faster, but her movements seemed to slow with each interminable step.
Suddenly it was over and she was standing on a white, clean and strangely calm deck. Gasping, her eyes darted from the sea to the sky, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Before she had a chance to think, a smart gentleman in chef’s uniform offered her a lurid pink beverage from a silver tray. Jess took it, dazed. All of the vibrations had vanished, as had the light. The sun shone and the waves lapped lazily at the sides of the vessel. Jess looked back at the wharf in disbelief. It was already receding into the distance. There was no sign of the bridge, or the taxi.
Ant turned to her, face wide with a toothy grin. “Welcome aboard Spiral Dial, Doctor!”
Jess looked at him, jaw dropped almost to the floor in disbelief. It was almost as if the memory of what had just happened had been erased from his memory. “Are you…alright? I mean, your arm. I should probably check it out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, when I…grabbed you just now.”
“Grabbed me? I don’t remember being grabbed.”
Ant looked completely blank. Jessica could tell that he didn’t have the faintest idea what she was talking about. Either that, or he was putting in an Oscar worthy performance. However, if her indiscretion had already been forgotten, whether through amnesia or feigned ignorance, it definitely suited her. The last thing she needed was any questions or background checks. This job had been something of a last minute find, and she had spruced up her CV to take full advantage of that fact. Nothing too heinous, but nothing that would stand up to much scrutiny, either.
Sipping her gaudy beverage, Jessica slowly began to relax and take in her surroundings. Peering over the edge, she tried and failed to find the other section of the ship, but there was nothing to be seen. Everything seemed to be in order. No crystals, no hum, no disintegrating bridges. She felt the fear and uncertainty in her mind slipping away, replaced by an immersive sense of total relaxation. Ant ushered her over to a pale wicker chair, one of a row of bright white recliners lining a luxurious looking swimming pool.
“I thought this wasn’t a tourist trip.”
Ant looked bemused. “It’s not a tourist trip for you. Or for me. We’re here to work, or at least I am. Your first shift isn’t till tomorrow.”
“Right,” Jess mused. “I suppose it’s not quite what I was expecting.”
“I mean technically you are on call tonight too, since your predecessor left in rather a hurry, so I heard.” The corners of his mouth curled in amusement.
“No chance of a handover then?”
Ant’s grin widened into a full on smirk. “They really saw you coming, didn’t they?”
Jess pursed her lips and tilted her head slightly in annoyance. “Well, I-”
“Come on. Let’s hear it. What did they tell you? About the ship?”
Jess cast her mind back. The interview had been yesterday but seemed a very long time ago. Now she thought about it, it had been more than a little odd. For one thing, the wallpaper in the small interview room had consisted solely of borderline pornographic cartoons. Not to mention the large hollowed out piano acting as a coffee dispenser in the hallway, its voice silenced in the name of caffeine consumption.
“I hate to disappoint you, Ant. But I always do my research. I understand the scientific focus of the vessel is climate change research. Ice core analysis. I won’t bore you with the details.”
Ant chuckled. “That makes sense.”
“What exactly is that meant to mean?”
“What it means is, you may want to take a closer look at your contract tonight. The small print is always an eye opener for me. As they say, the devil is in the detail! Anyway, enough of this small talk. Let me give you a guided tour. Hopefully I can answer a few of your questions.”
As he rose to his feet the gentleman in the crisp white chef’s hat was already on hand with his shining platter to take their empties. Jessica thanked him and he nodded as he disappeared off down the glittering decking, heels clicking. The Army officer in her appreciated a brisk walking pace. Ant was still burbling on about the ship. She snapped her attention away from the chef and back onto him.
“….thirteen sun loungers, as you can see. One for each guest, although they are seldom all here at once, so feel free to use one should you have a spare minute.”
Guests? Jessica hadn’t been told anything about guests. Her surprise must have shown on her face.
“Guests. More money than sense. They’re here for a joy ride, you know. Get to travel the world, go to Antarctica, see the penguins, all in the name of science. Oh, and philanthropy of course. Who do you think’s paying for all this?”
Jessica had assumed that the Company was paying for it. She’d not looked into it too thoroughly, admittedly. After a long stint on the public payroll, the idea of a decent sized pay cheque had far outweighed any concerns about its origins.
“Pah.” Ant had read her mind. “The Company would never use their own money on a speculative venture like this. No way. They’ve been advertising this voyage for years. It got competitive. I heard there was quite the shortlist. Shame they didn’t just pick the hot ones, if you ask me.”
Typical. Stuck on a year long voyage with a misogynistic, sarcastic Antipodean. Still, he was right about one thing. Jess wished she could remember the precise terms of her contract. She changed the subject. “So, where is everybody?”
“At the concert.”
Jessica slowly raised one eyebrow. “The concert?”
“There’s always a concert when somebody new comes on board. It’s compulsory attendance.”
Jessica grimaced. She had worked on too many cruise ships to relish the thought of the on board entertainment, and had rather been hoping for a bit of peace and quiet. Adjusting her grimace into a smile, she put on what she hoped was an enthusiastic expression. After all, there was no level of compulsory concert that a medical emergency could not trump. She was hoping to get going in the clinic straight away, and was very much looking forward to the small talk about concerts being over.
“You must be knackered. Let me show you to your cabin. You’ll find your way round soon enough. It’s a small ship. We’re a friendly bunch, once you get to know us. Oh and don’t worry, you’ll be invited to the next gig for sure! They play all the time.” Jessica cringed in anticipation. Still, at least this was the ideal excuse for her to crack on with her job.
Ant let her down a winding white staircase into a spacious corridor. To her right was a spectacular sea view, to the left a large, arched white wooden door bearing a simple number 1 embossed in purple velvet. The corridor ahead appeared to curve inward to the left.
“That’s one of the guest cabins. Yours is further down. You’re lucky to be up here. Ours are all below deck.”
Jessica followed him down the corridor’s gentle curve past cabin number two, which had an identical velvet-embossed door to cabin one. As the corridor spiralled inwards the numbers on the left got higher and higher, while the view on the right remained unchanged and just as spectacular as ever. By the time they got to number eleven, Jessica was feeling disorientated. How big exactly was this ship? It hadn’t seemed particularly large from the top deck and yet they seemed to have been going round in circles for hours. Finally they reached another white arched wooden door, with the letter D embossed in the signature purple velvet. Ant produced an unfeasibly large Gothic key ring from his trouser pocket and started fiddling through one by one. Just as Jessica was beginning to tap her toes in frustration, Ant produced the appropriate key and opened the door for her. Odd that they would have keys in this day and age, Jessica thought.
“Quaint, isn’t it? I’m told it all adds to the experience. For the guests, I mean! The crew access is all fingerprint activated. They’ll sort all of that out for you in the morning. You should get some rest.”
Jessica entered the cabin. Her suitcase, she was relieved to see, was safely ensconced in the far corner of the room. The decor really was old fashioned. The walls were bare whitewashed wood, and featured what must be a genuine anchor from several hundred years ago, complete with rust and artfully rotted netting. The bedspread was also patterned with a fishing net texture. Most unusual were the four posters of the bed. They each formed a perfect spiral. As she looked at them she could have sworn that they almost moved. She reached out to touch them. They were just slightly rough with a hint of sparkle, which reminded her of the strange pavement on the wharf. A tingle ran down her spine as she thought of it. She shook her head. It had been one hell of a morning.
She had a vague feeling that there was something she had been planning to do now, but it seemed to have slipped from her mind. It had been a long journey, and she was suddenly feeling so very sleepy. Maybe Ant had been right. Maybe she could do with a nap.
Ant had already left, and Jess sunk gratefully into the thick duvet. She was more than grateful not to have to make her own bed up. She ran through the events of the morning, recalling the unexpected sounds and sensations she had experienced on the wharf. She knew she should be concerned, but she felt strangely safe and reassured. Sleep came quickly.
A loud banging sound woke her with a start. Jess leapt to her feet, suddenly alert. Tiptoeing to the door, she noted that there was no safety catch or peephole available. She would have to speak to them about that. She called out, “Who’s there?”
Ant’s distinctive twang replied, “G’day Doc! I hope you don’t mind me disturbing you, but we’d really appreciate some out of hours medical advice, if that’s okay….”
“Sure, always happy to help,” she lied through her teeth.
“It’s my mate. She’s got a terrible cold sore and she really needs to look good for tomorrow’s show. I don’t suppose you’d be able to sort her out?”
Jessica was in no way happy to help, but felt guilty for manhandling Ant earlier. Trying to conceal her annoyance, she put on what she hoped was an empathic expression and opened the door. “Sure. Why don’t you bring her over? I haven’t got set up at the clinic yet, but I’d be happy to take a look here, if that’s ok with you.”
Ant produced her instantly from around the corner. So much for asking her permission. He introduced her as Amy, and as he spoke his eyes did not leave her face. It was clear to Jess that he wanted to be more than just her mate, and with good reason: Amy was stunning. Jessica had always found attractive women unsettling, and she was no exception. She hung back slightly, seeming a little bashful. Her hair fell in bouncy blonde ringlets to her shoulders, forming a curtain over the left side of her face, and her plump cheeks were flushed somewhat with embarrassment.
“Thanks so much for seeing me. I know it’s early. It’s very kind of you,” Amy stammered.
Early? Jess experienced momentary anxiety as she realised that she had no idea whatsoever of the time. Before she could quite grasp this though, Amy sat down gently on Jessica’s bed. Her physical proximity sent another gentle tingle down her spine, this time completely explicable, and wiped all thoughts of time and place from her mind completely. Searching, she asked the first question which came to mind.
“So, Amy, what is it that you do on board?”
She hesitated slightly, glancing over at Ant before answering. “Well, I’m kind of a kitchen dogsbody. Not that it’s an official job, or anything.”
“She’s too modest. Amy has recently been promoted to chief nursing officer,” Ant interjected.
Jess raised her eyebrows. A nurse who couldn’t sort out her own cold sore?
Amy blushed again. “Look, I help out in the clinic sometimes. I did with the last doctor, anyway, when it was busy. I used to look after my grandma, you see, before I went into catering. I’d love to give you a hand. If you’d like me to, that is.”
“Sure- I’d love that.” Jess surprised herself at the level of her enthusiasm. “I used to be a healthcare assistant myself, actually. Before I was in the Army.”
“Ant didn’t tell me you were in the Army! What was it like? Did you travel? I bet you’ve seen it all,” Amy gushed.
Jessica hesitated, cursing herself for bringing it up, and an awkward silence followed while she considered how best to change the subject. “You know, it’s not nearly as exciting as people think. We’ll have plenty of time to chat about it later, anyway. Ant mentioned you had a problem with your face?”
Amy nodded, seeming slightly chastened by the reaction to her question. Her hair still obscured half of her face.
Jessica lifted her hand. “May I?”
Gently, she pushed back the stray strands of hair, noticing its softness despite herself. As she did so, Amy kept her eyes cast down, avoiding her gaze. Examining her face, Jessica could see that her smooth skin had one small flaw: a weeping, yellowish lump on the left side of her upper lip. “I thought it was a cold sore, you see,” the girl said. “But it just keeps getting worse, and I’ve got a hot date tomorrow night.”
Jessica silently bemoaned her luck, then realised that she could perhaps influence this situation in her favour. “I’m sorry to say that I wouldn’t advise close contact of any sort. It looks like you’ve got a skin infection, and these are extremely contagious. You should wait until it’s crusted over, preferably until it’s completely healed. It’ll just need some antibiotic cream.”
Ant chipped in. “If you tell us which one, we can drop by the dispensary and pick it up. I’ve got access.”
Jessica raised her eyebrows. Clearly things were a little lax around here if engineers were able to help themselves to the medicine cupboard. She would have to address that tomorrow. For now, she merely wrote the name down on a piece of paper and handed it over. As the girl got up to leave. Jessica added, against her better judgement, “Do come by the clinic to see me to make sure it’s all healed. I’d be very happy to check you over.”
Amy blushed as she made her way out of the room, and so did Jess, realising she may have come across a little too enthusiastic in her offer. Talk about a first day. She had assaulted her welcome party and tried to pick up her first patient. Maybe now was a good time to read the small print of her contract, as her adrenaline was up too much for her to even contemplate sleep.
Exploring the cabin, she found a convenient semicircular alcove lined with wooden planks which had the appearance and authentic smell of an original beer keg, giving the words ‘freshly decorated’ a whole new meaning. The top of the beer keg formed a small desk just large enough for a laptop. Opening her suitcase, she methodically packed her few possessions into the fitted wardrobe, taking care to ensure that it was correctly ordered and matched according to colour. At the bottom of the case rested her small portfolio case, embossed with her initials. It contained copies of all of her most important documents: passport, driving licence, qualifications, insurance, as well as a printed copy of her contract of employment. It was her habit to keep hard copies of such things. She had no faith in the security of the Internet.
Sitting down at her fragrant desk, she began to peruse the terms and conditions. The first few pages were standard and more than a little turgid. Ant’s words echoing in her head, she made the effort to read every word, although the more pages she turned, the more the words seemed to dance before her eyes. She persevered.
She started with the most important section- the one dealing with time off.
Leave: On board leave shall be taken only with the permission of the Captain, and in accordance with the schedule of the ship. This schedule shall be fixed in advance and shall not be subject to alteration.
Emergency Leave: Will be subject to the same terms as Leave.
This seemed a little harsh, but no more so than most NHS hospitals she had worked for, and certainly more generous than the Army. She continued flicking through the pages, pausing to read a paragraph here and there.
Passengers: There shall be thirteen (13) passengers on board Spiral Dial at all times. Should this number decrease for any reason, the Captain may consider an emergency diversion for resupply.
Research: All those on board Spiral Dial consent to support the ship in her mission to advance scientific knowledge as far as they can by any reasonable means.
Communication: All electronic communications may be subject to monitoring according to the Company’s appropriate use policy, available on the intranet and updated according to the latest security guidance. All communication which may impact or divulge confidential research is strictly forbidden. All breaches of this policy will be subject to disciplinary action as detailed in Policy 0013546 Section A.
Finally, there was this.
Disclaimer: I sign this contract out of my own free will, agreeing to all of the clauses above without exception. I accept any risk of physical injury, illness or death which I undertake as a result of boarding Spiral Dial is not the liability of the Company or Captain.
Was that sort of sweeping statement usual? Certainly the Army had something similar. Jessica wasn’t sure that it would be expected when boarding a scientific research vessel. She would have to have words with the agency. At least the contract had had the desired effect on her eyelids, which were sinking fast. She swiftly undressed, gratefully snuggling into the soft mattress, and passed out.
It felt like only minutes later when a rude banging at her door shook her awake.
“Help! Help!” It was Ant’s voice again. Glancing at her watch, she noted the time as exactly thirteen minutes past midnight. Jessica had not bothered with pyjamas, and looked around the room for something to put on, settling on a ship’s issue white fluffy dressing gown, complete with velvet logo. Blinking , she opened her door, hoping she wasn’t showing too much leg. “What is it now?”
Ant’s face was drained of all colour and glistening with sweat. Looking down, Jess realised that his hands were blackened. A dreadful smell permeated the air. It reminded her of the battlefield. The scent of decaying flesh.
“It’s Amy. She’s not well. It’s an emergency- please hurry.”